Recently we worked with Opinium to conduct in-depth research on behalf of our client Nesta Challenges into access to justice in England and Wales. The results revealed nearly two-thirds of people do not believe the justice system is set up for ordinary people. The survey also found 15% people in England and Wales have experienced a legal issue in the last decade; although with only half (51%) of all respondents confident they can identify whether a problem is a legal matter, this is likely to be far higher. The vast majority (79%) believe it needs to be easier for people to access legal guidance and advice for themselves and that technology could be the solution to this, with 59% saying they think technology could lead to better services to help people resolve their legal problems.

We undertook the research to mark the launch of the Legal Access Challenge, a challenge prize funded by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and run by Nesta Challenges. Challenge prizes stimulate innovation through competition. They pinpoint a problem and then offer a prize for the first or best solution.

The Legal Access Challenge aims to encourage innovators to submit solutions to the problems that individuals and small businesses experience when accessing the legal system. This might be a solution to help someone identify whether they have a legal problem in the first place, or maybe be able to work out the cost of legal assistance in advance – what’s important is that the tool or product improves access to the legal system.

Ahead of the official launch we organised a press breakfast briefing to maximise the visibility of the Challenge, securing coverage in The Times as well as high profile trade titles including the Law Society Gazette, Legal Tech News and Legal Futures.

The Challenge kicked off with a launch event at Nesta’s offices in London, attended by a large audience of innovators, legal tech entrepreneurs, legal charities and access to justice champions. After introductions from Sir John Gieve (Nesta) and Anna Bradley (SRA), broadcast journalist Clive Coleman chaired an insightful panel discussion with Julia Salasky (Crowd Justice), Tim Pullan (ThoughtRiver), Nicky Leitjens (NautaDutilh and She Breaks the Law) and Julie Bishop (UK Law Centre Network).

Sir John explained that regulators like the SRA have a role in guiding how markets develop to achieve the ecosystem they want to see, and that technology has a huge role to play in broadening access to justice. He encouraged applications to win one of four £50,000 prizes as part of the challenge – with one of the four winning an additional £50,000 to further develop their ideas. Anna Bradley reaffirmed the potential for technology to transform the legal sector in the near future, so that the nine in 10 people who currently don’t seek legal advice from a lawyer when they need it, are empowered to speak to a solicitor in the future.

The panellists then shared their thoughts about the present challenges facing access to justice and some of the key things entrants to the Legal Access Challenge should consider. Julia Salasky highlighted that the legal sector has a culture of being resistant to change. When it comes to technology that resistance is evident, but there’s little point trying to drag people kicking and screaming in to using new LegalTech tools. To overcome the resistance, an innovation has to achieve one of two things; either it has to be a very attractive tool that people want to use, or perform a task so much better than it is currently done that it just can’t be ignored.

Tim Pullan explored the economic reality that huge investments in legal tech require funding and pay-off. This means that products end up in the top end of the legal market – for corporate law or to support the law firms – and don’t make their way to everyday consumers. He was confident though that there will be a trickle-down effect with the tech and consumers will eventually see it being used to remove unnecessary complexity from the legal system.

Nicky Leitjens shone a light on consumer expectations, especially the need for consumers to be in control. In an on-demand world, the legal system does not currently reflect what people want and that the legal sector needs to continually evolve.

Julie Bishop continued the theme of user experience, pointing out that there are lots of tools out there that give access to the legal system, but not necessarily to justice. She flagged that innovations need to be mindful of the emotional state that someone interacting with the law is in; tools need to be considerate that underrepresented users will likely be in a highly-stressful situation and need a tool that supports them in seeking resolution and justice.

It was a thought-provoking launch, well attended with lots of in-depth discussion and we hope that the event – together with media coverage – will encourage a large number of entries to the Challenge.

The Legal Access Challenge is accepting applications until 11 August 2019. Find out more at legalaccesschallenge.org